Sometimes I feel my soul harrowed by this experience …
How many days is it? I’ve lost track — feel stuck and unmoored at the same time. This day, May 3, 2020, feels like day one of the lockdown — it could as well be day one hundred, or day thirty, despite the recent advisories that certain businesses will be allowed to reopen. This balmy Spring day of 20 degrees Celsius actually marks the seventh week and the fifty-second day of the lockdown here in Toronto. Over that time my emotions have run the gamut through anger and rage, grief, recognition, rejection, and a few others — has someone come up yet with the seven stages of reaction to COVID-19? Facebook becomes a go-to place to express my feelings, to post a couple of poems, but now I find myself becalmed, no wind of anger to carry me over this wide Sargasso Sea of grief, bewilderment and, at times, despair. Metaphor I believe is foundational to our work as poets, but equally important to how we, being human, situate ourselves in the world around us. I sometimes see myself as a cork bobbing on a rank sea; sometimes the cork metamorphoses and I see myself hanging on to a cliff by my nails — not so much a metaphor as an image. Should I let go and fall? Where to? In the “early days” I would often think that the world, like some recalcitrant child, had been assigned a giant time out for bad behavior, sent to our collective corner to think about what it means to be a being that is human, rather than a human whose doings have resulted in looming catastrophe for this our only world.
Which brings me to the late Kamau Brathwaite who, in an interview* with the writer Joyelle McSweeney about Hurricane Katrina and its impact, said: “One thing about catastrophe, for me, is that it always seems to lead to a kind of magic realism. That moment of utter disaster, the very moment when it seems almost hopeless, too difficult to proceed, you begin to glimpse a kind of radiance on the other end of the maelstrom.” Strange bedfellows, to return to metaphor, magic realism, hopelessness, and radiance. He himself faced major catastrophes in his life — the destruction of his home by a hurricane, the loss of his first wife as a consequence of that, a violent break-in in his home which he claimed rendered him “dead,” and finally the obduracy of the Barbadian government in the face of his desire to develop Cow Pastor into what he called the Bussa Institute where he could have his papers and welcome friends, writers, artists and fellow travelers. It never came to pass — indeed in June 2019 the Barbadian government leased the land around the airport to a foreign “conglom,” to use his word.
Perhaps I should begin with hopelessness that so many of us feel at this moment and despair as to whether once “this” is over, although that seems far-fetched at present, amnesia will set in and it will be business as usual as the climate warms. There is much to feel hopeless about. The magic realism takes my mind to the oldest living examples of rock art found in the world at the Blombos Cave in South Africa, some of which are between 73,000–77,000 years. Some of these drawings depict the practice of therianthropy, the now-mythological ability of humans to change into other animals, and I wonder if that is what we are witnessing now — our selves changing into different beings as social distancing permeates our every activity. Beings who are afraid to touch, who are tied to the screen, who are surveilled 24/7 in the name of health. How do these practices change us as poets, as writers, and is our writing in this present time an echo of the handprint of our long distant ancestors on the wall of the cave? We were here once and this is what we made. Have we become more fearful, more compliant in the face of lockdowns and shutdowns and sheltering in place? These rock art depictions also reveal ceremony in which individuals move into trance to enter another world to seek help for illness and misfortune. Can we become poet shamans, practicing a kind of magic realism — an expression that appears to serve two masters — that can bring healing to the world, to the planet, to each of our small and beautiful and sometimes ugly worlds? Is this a task too big for poetry? Is there any task that is too big for poetry, I ask.
Kamau himself in the same interview talks of meeting an Ancestor, Namsetoura, on the land and allowing her to guide him.
Sometimes I hear the bells ring out … ding ding dong, din din don done dead done died …
Brathwaite talks of radiance in the face of hopelessness, Lorde of poetry being a “revelatory distillation of experience,” a “vital necessity of our existence (as it) forms the quality of light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives” (my emphasis). Poet shamans, shaman poets who dare to dream the dream of healing this world — through their words! And the magic they weave with those words — imagine!
“Poetry is not a luxury,” the warrior who was also poet and the poet who was also warrior wrote; little did she know how much we would need those words today as we are being metaphorically blooded and bloodied by this experience, even as we make bread and sew masks.
Many catastrophes are unfolding simultaneously, yet within different chronological rhythms. There is the catastrophe of what we beings who deny aspects of our humanity such as compassion, love, and understanding of the ecology we are born into are doing to the earth. The roots of this catastrophe go deep and its offshoot catastrophes can be witnessed in the genocidal trade in enslaved Africans by European and Arab nations, and the genocidal settling of the “New World.” There are the catastrophes of the Shoah, the Rwandan genocide, the Bosnian genocide, the Rohinga, World Wars I and II — the list appears endless. We live in the shadow of catastrophe. Yet our griot poets talk of radiance and light. What do they know that we don’t. More to the point — what do we know that we don’t know? How do we know it? What will we do with it?
ghost fathers with mournful faces do nothing for the state of the world — I said it
& all you men with adult progeny
& all you men still alive
& all of you holding your faces
& this is the state of the world
— Otoniya J. Okot Bitek
*(“Poetics, Revelations and Catastrophes: An Interview with Kamau Brathwaite”)